The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter discusses why President Biden's popular policies haven't translated to popularity among voters.
Broadway just concluded its highest-grossing season on record. Some of this success is thanks to inventive productions like “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which makes novel use of technology to put the audience into the mind of an autistic teen. But also booming are revivals of old musical favorites like “On the Town.” Even in many smaller theaters, ticket prices are sky high. So what are theaters big and small doing to keep seats filled? A conversation about trends in American theater and what’s drawing people to the theater — from regional shows to Broadway — today.
- Seth Greenleaf Tony Award-winning Broadway producer. Recent credits include “Disgraced," "The Glass Menagerie" and “Matilda.”
- Ben Brantley Chief theater critic, The New York Times
- Jeff Lunden Freelance performing arts journalist; frequent contributor, NPR
- Maggie Boland Managing director, Signature Theater
Wesley Taylor stars in the Signature Theatre’s production of Cabaret in Arlington, Virginia.
An excerpt from “Diner” at Virginia’s Signature Theatre.
This New York Times clip takes a look at Ayad Akhtar’s drama “Disgraced.”
How to watch theater, from The New York Times' Ben Brantley
So you've never been to Broadway. Here are some tips to help you dive in.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Historical figures that rap, evil hand puppets, high tech projections and electronic music, these are not things typically associated with classic Broadway shows, but they are among the elements that have made this a successful moment for big American theater. This weekend, the Tony Awards will honor some of those productions that helped make this the highest-grossing year in Broadway history.
MS. DIANE REHMHere with me to look at theater trends on Broadway and beyond, Maggie Boland of the D.C. area Signature Theater. From the NPR studios in New York City, Ben Brantley of The New York Times and performing arts journalist Jeff Lunden. Throughout the hour, you're invited to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Let us know what you've been seeing and enjoying. I look forward to hearing from you.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd thank all of you for joining us.
MS. MAGGIE BOLANDThrilled to be here. Thank you.
REHMGood. Ben Brantley, let me start with you as chief theater critic for The New York Times. Tell me what themes stand out for you in the past year's theater. Why is everything hopping the way it is?
MR. BEN BRANTLEYWell, it's for two reasons, really. On the one hand, you do have the big, opulent song and dance shows that tourists, who are 70 percent of the Broadway audience, want to see, but you also have some, I think, really watershed productions, plays that are unlike anything we've seen before on Broadway, including "The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Night-Time," adapted from the novel, told from the view of an autistic teenager.
MR. BEN BRANTLEYAnd the extraordinary thing is they use the technology of theater in a way I haven't seen before to actually approximate this young man's point of view so you enter into it subjectively and sort of the power...
REHMCan you describe that for me? Because I have not seen it. Describe that for me.
BRANTLEYWell, the great moment for me is here's a kid who's grown up knowing only the same routine, the same very limited environment, who embarks on a quest, as sort of a self-styled Sherlock Holmes, to discover who murdered a dog next door. And it winds up taking him to London. So you imagine a kind who's never been in a big city, never really been out of his immediate neighborhood suddenly finding himself on the underground, on the subway in London.
BRANTLEYAnd the projections that come up then, the staircase and so forth, it's that sense you have when you haven't slept, if you live in a big city and you go out and you go on and you -- suddenly, everything's coming at you. Your sensory editor isn't working. Do you know what I mean?
BRANTLEYYou are besieged. And the way it uses projections, noise, your sense of the dimensions being scrambled, it really does approximate that feeling and it's a very tense and yet very exhilarating experience as the same time.
REHMThere's also a portrait of lesbianism that is coming out in the play, "Fun Home."
BRANTLEYUm-hum. That's a wonderful show. That would be the other show that I'd say would be the sort of standout for me. But it's not so much that it's a portrait of lesbianism, although that does come into it. But it's the portrait of a family and the secrets family members keep from each other. And coming of age and discovering that -- and defining yourself -- as a young woman, in this case, coming of age in relation to a father who this young woman discovers is gay, just as she's discovering her sexual identity.
REHMSo you would say different kinds of themes, different approaches, use of different techniques have created something new and exciting to make this one of Broadway's best years.
BRANTLEYIt's been a good year and when we have plays like "Hand To God," the hand puppet who issues devilish edicts from the almighty and "Disgraced," an extremely topical, of-the-moment play was on this year. Yeah, it's -- oh, even, oh, "Wolf Hall," the two plays adapted from the Hilary Mantel novels, have a narrative breadth and excitement that -- it's story theater. I mean, we've had precedent for that on Broadway, like the famous "Nicholas Nickleby" from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
BRANTLEYBut this Royal Shakespeare Company also gives you the sense, in a very different way, of doing something theater could only do and yet, at the same time, it's like sinking into a really, really good novel and just riding with it.
REHMAnd to you, Jeff Lunden, I know you're a freelance performing arts journalist. You frequently cover theater for NPR so it's good to meet you. Tell me what's been most encouraging to you that was on Broadway this year.
MR. JEFF LUNDENWell, I think most of the pieces that Ben is talking about are pieces that I found very resonant and I think part of what's encouraging about it is that it's so different. These pieces, in particular, have very singular visions. "Fun Home" is really unlike any other musical I've seen...
LUNDEN...in terms of the...
REHMDescribe it for us. What happens?
LUNDENWell, it is a memory play and to a certain degree, it's narrated by the older Alison Bechdel who's doing her graphic memoir and it's based on Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir. But you also see two other versions of Alison. You see Alison as an 11-year-old and you see Alison as a young woman going to Overland College and sort of discovering her sexuality. At the same time, it's kind of going back and forth between these different ages.
LUNDENAnd then, of course, at the very end, all three Alisons sing together, which is such an emotional moment. But the father, played by Michael Cerveris, who is this closeted gay man, the mother, Judy Kuhn, who is kind of longsuffering, they all have their moments and it doesn't use songs in the same way that you expect musicals, you know, with a kind of an opening number and a number two I-want song, you know, all I want is a room somewhere.
LUNDENIt has fragments. It comes in and out.
BRANTLEYWell, it's a memory musical in the sense that "The Glass Menagerie" is a memory play, I think. The music really captures that sort of both flowing quality of memory and, as Jeff says, the fragmentary aspect of it, too.
REHMAnd to you, Maggie Boland, do you see these themes extending from Broadway into more regional theaters like those here in Washington?
BOLANDOh, absolutely. We're all so encouraged to see audiences embracing these beautiful new works, which, as my co-panelists have said, are really different, singular in their vision and as a theater-like signature that develops so many new world premieres, to see the possibilities of broad audiences embracing them as very, very exciting.
REHMSo you have, in a sense, the freedom to develop here in Washington, what eventually could go on to Broadway.
BOLANDWe absolutely do and you see that happening over and over again with so many of the projects that eventually make their way to New York, having had their developmental process happening around the country and it's very important to have super high quality theater taking place in hometowns all around the country for people who can't maybe get to Broadway to know that here in Washington, we have work that I would say is of equality happening on our stages. And some of the most exciting artists in the country are working in the regional theaters around the country.
REHMJeff Lunden, you want to comment?
LUNDENYes. And Diane, one of the things that I should say is that in many respects, what Broadway has become over the years is kind of a shop window for musicals and plays that have been developed in regional theaters across the country and in other countries. I mean, if you actually look at the four plays which are up for Best Play, which by the way, every single author is making their Broadway debut.
LUNDENThey're not making their theatrical debut, but they're making their Broadway debut. "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" was developed at London's Royal National Theater and they had a lengthy workshop process where they worked out the theatrical techniques to tell the story of this autistic boy. "Disgraced" got its premiere at a tiny theater in Chicago, moved to Lincoln Center to their small theater there and then moved to Broadway.
LUNDEN"Hand To God" was done at a teeny-tiny off-off Broadway theater called Ensemble Studio Theater, moved to a larger off Broadway theater as coming. And "Wolf Hall," of course, was put together by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and, of course, they've got kind of the budget to do this.
REHMJeff Lunden, he's freelance performing arts journalist and covers theater for NPR.
REHMAnd, of course, that is from one of the revivals on Broadway now, "The King and I." I wonder, Ben Bradley -- Ben Brantley, talk about how well these kinds of revivals do. It would seem people love them, going back and back and back to those...
BRANTLEYWell, it's true. In sense, I think, Broadway has developed a kind of floating repertory -- moving a little more slowly perhaps -- but like the Metropolitan Opera. You know, instead of "La Boehme" and "Madame Butterfly," you have "Gypsy" and "The King and I" and "South Pacific" and "Carousel," all in kind of endless rotation. Fortunately, Lincoln Center, in particular, and the director, Bartlett Sher, have done very well by Rogers and Hammerstein. First, with, I thought, a revelatory revival of "South Pacific" some years ago. And now, with the same star, Kelli O'Hara, "The King and I," which you would think might be a little difficult to put on these days. I mean, you know, it's -- Oriental people are so quaint, as the song goes, actually.
BRANTLEYI mean, so it's aware of its own point of view. But the thing you forget about Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein is there's always so much heart in it and I think something that really touches people about the forms of love, which I think this musical really is. And Kelli O'Hara is just a marvel. I -- she can translate song into what sounds like conversation, but still in the most dulcet voice. It's a very moving production. And every member of the cast in this -- this is another thing Bartlett Sher does -- seems to have such an individual personality. You're aware of all these people reacting to one another at the same time on stage.
LUNDENI should add, too, that it's being done at the Lincoln Center Theater. And the Lincoln Center Theater is one of the last places that can do this kind of show the way that it needs to be done. And when I say the way it needs to be done, it requires a cast of 51 people...
LUNDEN...which they can do.
LUNDENIt requires a full-scale orchestra of 29. And at the overture, you actually see the orchestra, and then...
BRANTLEYIt's really exciting, yeah.
LUNDENAnd it's thrilling to see...
LUNDEN...the players. And then the stage moves forward and we see this boat. And it's one of the most thrilling images I think I've ever seen on the Lincoln Center stage or any Broadway stage. But it's interesting that, in the not-for-profit sector...
LUNDENThey're the ones who can do this kind of full realization. In the for-profit sector, I think you would find that they might not spend as much money. They would cut on the number of musicians.
LUNDENThey would cut on...
LUNDEN...the number of cast members.
REHMAnd speaking of money, we have a comment from our website saying, "When someplace musicals run for decades, while others fold almost immediately, it's pretty obvious that money is the sole purpose of theater. Art and entertainment end up way down the list. The prices of tickets alone are a deterrent. Maggie, what do you say to that?
BOLANDWell, I think that's one of the things that sets the non-profit regional theater movement apart from the pressures that are on Broadway. So that Signature, we can produce a world premier by John Kander, legendary composer whose musical "Cabaret" is running at our theater right now.
BOLANDBut we have the ability to say, we know this is a world premier. "Kid Victory" was the title. No one's going to know it. It's a difficult subject matter. We wouldn't expect to draw the magnitude of audience for that piece that we will for "Cabaret," which is running right now. So that's part of the balance of a season at a not-for-profit theater that has subscribers to support its newest projects. And, you know, we don't face those same draconian pressures that I think the commercial productions do.
REHMYou do face the kinds of limits that Jeff was describing in terms of the number of people in a cast or a live orchestra or that sort of thing.
BOLANDWe absolutely do and it's one of the really important things that we look at when putting together a season as a whole. So for Signature to take on a production like "West Side Story," which we'll be producing next year, which has a cast of 27 and a full orchestra, I believe, of 20 pieces, it will be a really significant financial investment for us. But it's so important for audience-building, to have pieces in our season that encourage intergenerational attendance, that'll allow us to broaden our reach so that we can get audiences in for the first time and then bring them back for the more challenging pieces.
REHMSo would you say that Studio Theater is less tourist oriented than the theaters on Broadway?
BOLANDAbsolutely. I think for Signature and all of our counterparts in D.C., with one exception, Ford's Theater does have quite a high...
BOLAND...tourist traffic because of their unique position with the museum and the educational programs they offer. But in general, tourism is a much lower percentage of our audience than it is for Broadway. And that's one of the things we, as a city, in D.C., are really trying to look at as a community. How can we make us more recognized as a theater destination that we are, knowing how much quality work is going on, on our stages?
REHMI want to go back for a moment to you, Jeff Lunden. We have a clip from "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night." Describe for us how this little clip that we're about to hear -- talk about what's happening here.
LUNDENSure. This is a moment -- and this shows how sort of cleverly they adapted it. Because the book itself was written from the perspective of this autistic young man. And so you have to fill in the blanks, I guess, in terms of the relationships that are going on.
REHMBut describe the set.
LUNDENSo what happens in this clip...
REHMDescribe the set for us.
LUNDENThe set is basically a white box. It's like a piece of graph paper. And onto the set, they can put basically any kind of projection. It's beautiful. So in this thing, he is describing what it's like to be an astronaut, why he wants to be an astronaut. And the first part of it is actually not narrated by him. It's narrated by his teacher, who's reading the book that he's writing. And then he takes over. But as she is reading it, he is picked up aloft by the cast members. We see the stars in the sky. It is a very beautiful, poetic moment.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALETo be a good astronaut, you have to be intelligent. And I'm intelligent. You will have to understand how machines work. And I'm good at understanding how machines work.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEYou also have to be someone who would like being on their own in a tiny spacecraft, thousands and thousands of miles from the surface of the earth and not panic or get claustrophobia or homesick or insane. And I really like little spaces so long as there is no one else in them with me.
REHMSo, he is truly going aloft.
LUNDENThat's Alex Sharp, but...
REHMYou liked that, I gather, Ben Brantley.
BRANTLEYYes. And it's -- what's wonderful about it, is it's the sort of thing that could happen only in theater. Obviously, a fantasy could be worked with digital magic in film that would be more literal minded. But in this, it's using technology but also a cast lifting up a boy, who gives us the character and speaks it so perfectly. It's what's great about theater, when all those elements come together and you realize it's happening as you're watching it. And it could only happen live.
REHMMaggie, what are other theaters doing to set themselves apart visually?
BOLANDI think a lot of us are thinking about how to create a very full experience of seeing a show. So, for example, the production of "Murder Ballad" that just closed at Studio Theater, one of our colleagues in town, was completely immersive. They turned their theater into a dive bar. At Signature, we reinvented our theater space for "Cabaret" into the Kit Kat Klub, where you're literally immersed into the life of the club. And a lot of us are talking about how that full experience of seeing a show has become really important to our -- to our patrons. And we really want to make the -- provide the round, you know, full experience that's very exciting and sets each theater, you know, into its own niche.
REHMHere's a Facebook comment saying, "For those who grew up with television in the '50s, scenes from Broadway shows were regular features on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' Broadway was known all across the nation in those days. Today, there's very little opportunity to become acquainted with what's on Broadway." Unless they're reading your column, Ben.
BRANTLEYIt's true. There's less of that. And I remember the thrill of watching "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the early '60s, to see a scene from "Camelot" or whatever it happened to be. One thing that I think is good, in terms of sort of mass media dissemination, there does seem to be a love of the musical comedy's sensibility in shows like "Glee" or even "Pitch Perfect," of these voices coming together. And I do think that's engendering a greater interest among young people who want to come and see, sort of, the source, as it were.
LUNDENYou know, it's -- the Tony Awards are important, you know, on a couple of levels.
LUNDENOne is just, it's honoring the best on Broadway. But the other thing is that it's basically a big advertisement...
REHMSure. For Broadway.
LUNDEN...for Broadway. And it's the opportunity for people to see musical numbers, moments from the plays, just to get a sense of what's out there.
BRANTLEYYeah, it's fascinating. Because there are some numbers that just don't translate onto stage that will be so magical when you've seen them in a theater, and aren't perhaps showcased to their best advantage. And you do realize, again, what a particular medium theater is, as opposed to television.
LUNDENI have to say that one of the things that Actors' Equity worked on for a while was to allow actors to do scenes, moments, for social media. It's become a really important part of Broadway marketing.
LUNDENLess so that the, you know, the big ads in The Times and other places. So you can see bits and pieces on Facebook, on...
BRANTLEYAnd on the The Times' website, for that matter.
BRANTLEYWe have regularly videotaped scenes that you can check into -- a performer singing and talking -- scrubbed down, not actually on the stage.
BRANTLEYAnd there's sort of a magic in that, too.
REHMMaggie, as managing director of a regional theater, have you changed your outlook or your thinking about how best to attract audiences?
BOLANDThere's no question that the rise of social media as a tool for engaging with audiences has changed everything, in terms of how we generate content and think about what we're putting out there. You know, when I think -- we were -- we, as a field struggled a little when social media was first becoming an important tool for us. And we were in salesmanship mode all the time. And now, I think, really focusing on authenticity of content...
BOLAND...and putting our artists directly in touch with our audiences and having the ability to include content from backstage, you know, and provide windows in. I think that's become extremely, extremely important.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And joining us now is Tony Award Winning producer, Seth Greenleaf. Welcome to the program, Seth.
MR. SETH GREENLEAFThanks so much.
REHMI know you were one of the forces behind the enormously successful "Book of Mormon." How do you decide which shows are worth producing?
GREENLEAFOh, wow. That's the -- that's the toughest question there is, I think, at the end of the day. Because you live with the material and the people for so long, it's something of a marriage. You have to fall in love. And then once you fall in love, you start to ask yourself all the logistical questions. Whether or not you believe there's an audience for it. And who is that audience. And you start to get yourself wrapped up in the details. But I still think that probably every producer chooses first with their heart. And then they put the pieces together after that. So you have to personally love it.
REHMSo you're saying it's kind of from your gut that you're responding.
GREENLEAFAbsolutely. I think you can study everything on earth and it will tell you absolutely nothing about what's going to be successful and what's not in our business. I mean, the best minds in our craft will be the first ones to tell you, we kind of have no idea what we're doing. So at the end of the day, if you have to make a choice, it may as well be motivated by passion. Because at least you're going to have the energy and drive to take on a big task. But it's very tough, if not impossible, to predict what is going to engage an audience and what isn't.
REHMSo a recent production of yours deals with something quite serious. I want to hear a clip of the play, "Disgraced."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2What is that like for you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #3What?
#2Security at airports. No, I mean, you hear stories.
#3I wouldn't know. I cut right to the chase.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #2He volunteers himself. Walks right up to the agents and offers himself up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #3What, to be searched?
#3I know they're looking at me. So I figure, why not make it easier for everyone involved.
#3I've never heard of anybody doing that before.
#3On top of people being more and more afraid of folks who look like me, we end up being resented too.
#2Those agents are working hard not to discriminate. And then here's this guy who walks right up to them and calls them out on it. It's...
#3Pure, unmitigated, passive aggression. That's what my wife thinks.
#2Maybe she's got a point.
#3Hey, I think it's kind of admirable. I mean, if everyone was so forthcoming, the world would be a very different place.
#2It's racial profiling.
#3Honey, I know what it is.
REHMSo this is a Pulitzer Prize Winning play that talks about what can only be called strained relations between the West and the Middle East, Seth. Why did you decide to take this on?
GREENLEAFWell, I think, you heard in that clip that the writing -- a very sensitive, difficult topic. And it's -- it is dealt with, with humor and intelligence. And I think what Ayad did so well in this play is he doesn't come to conclusions but he presents the discussion for people in a very open and inviting way. And it was -- I remember reading the script on a plane, and 90 minutes, and especially reading on the computer. I usually just hate it and still try to print stuff out. But I opened it up and 90 straight minutes, I did not move an inch. I was riveted. I felt that there was something -- it spoke to this inner tension that we all feel, as we deal with these, you know, sorts of relationships in life.
GREENLEAFAnd, oh, I think it's our responsibility to push these things out into the world. We have to kind of balance that with commerce and the ability to run and succeed. But it's just such a special play.
REHMAll right. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're going to open the phones now. We have four guests with us, Seth Greenleaf, Tony Award-winning Broadway producer. Recent credits include "The Book of Mormon" and "Matilda." Jeff Lunden freelance performing arts journalist, frequently covering theater for NPR. Ben Brantley, he's chief theater critic for The New York Times, and Maggie Boland, she's here in the studio with me, she's managing director of Signature Theater, a D.C.-area nonprofit professional theater.
REHMLet's open the phones first to David in Tampa, Florida. You're on the air.
DAVIDHi, Diane, thank you so much for taking my call.
DAVIDPleasure to be on with such a great panel of people about this.
DAVIDOkay, I'm a student of theater, and I'm going to be doing theater in college, actually, a great, great, one of the great conservatories in the country, and as looking out into the theater world as a young artist and seeing the trends on Broadway and even off Broadway in the past couple years, from the jukebox musicals of Motown and Memphis and all those shows, and now going back to some really heart-tugging, like, shows, like "Fun Home" and back to beautiful shows like "King and I," I was just wondering where your panel saw Broadway going, if they see it going back to the jukebox musicals of "American Idiot" and stuff like that or moving forward and more original things like "Bridges" and really artistic things like "Hand to God," which a couple of years ago I don't think would have even succeeded as - commercially...
REHMAll right, so let's see what Ben Brantley thinks.
BRANTLEYWell, I think as Seth was saying, if they knew the formula for success, they would bottle it and sell it. It's - there does seem to be a kind of corporate mentality at work on Broadway now, the way there used to be in Hollywood, where you think wow, you know, jukebox musicals are doing well, let's come up with another, and this has - this past season has shown something of a break, I think, in that sort of (unintelligible) sensibility. But can I honestly predict that this is going to - I mean, the first time things start failing, things that seem at all exotic, I think you're going to see, you know, people running back to the bunkers and coming up with the same old formula stuff.
BRANTLEYAnd the main thing that I think producers do know is that a brand name does provide a certain amount of security. So if a show is based on a movie that people already know, or it's even a television series like "The Adams Family" is going to bring in a certain amount of audience.
REHMGo ahead, Jeff.
LUNDENThere's, you know, a basic piece of math that you need to know about commercial Broadway theater, which is only one in four Broadway shows succeeds. Now succeeds could mean just literally making your money back or making a small profit or hitting the -- going past the fences, you know. If you have a show like "Wicked," which has run for 12 years and can practically mint money, you know, it's in the hundreds of millions of dollars, there are national companies, there are international companies, there's licensing, et cetera, et cetera, so, you know, it's a high-risk, high-reward kind of marketplace.
REHMBut what does -- I wonder what that says for the aspiring actor, Maggie.
BOLANDWell, I was going to say to our caller and to all of the theater students out there that though, of course, Broadway is considered the pinnacle of success for theater artists for many reasons, it's very possible to make a great living not on Broadway. We have an extraordinary community of artists, designers, actors, directors, writers here in Washington, who live here year-round, making a living not as a step on the way to Broadway but as a very satisfying career.
REHMAnd Seth, what would you add?
GREENLEAFI think trends on Broadway are impossible to predict. We're just not that smart, and it takes five to 10 years to develop a show. So the idea that, you know, you would assume what a trend would be and then deliver a property at the right time for it is kind of impossible. I think there's just a natural process whereby audiences embrace shows that work and that are good, and there may be other shows that follow up because they might have already been in the works, they might seem to trend in the same direction, but at the end of the day, I think the shows that survive are just shows that work, that people enjoy and that they embrace, and I think there's no way to predict or to try to follow in the pattern of a show that's come before.
REHMThis is an interesting comment from Barbara in St. Louis, Missouri. You're on the air, Barbara.
BARBARAHi. Could the panel discuss the fact that some of the theaters, most especially the National Theater in London, are doing HD performances of their plays? So it really exposes many more people to the shows. Two years ago they did "Dog in the Night," which I saw, and it just fuels your interest in wanting to see more theater.
GREENLEAFIt's a great...
REHMGo ahead, Seth.
GREENLEAFNo, no, Ben, please.
BRANTLEYIn any case, no, I think it's a wonderful thing. It's -- what -- it's not like being in the theater, which is a very particular experience. I think it's wonderful if you don't have the chance to see, say, that production otherwise.
BRANTLEYIt gives you a sense of what it is but only a sense. What I hope it does is make people think, well, if this is so -- has such impact on me in this context, what must it be like to see it happening in real time in front of my eyes.
REHMWhat do you think, Seth?
GREENLEAFWell, there's long been a discussion about whether or not airing footage of shows hurts the live experience or helps it, and I agree with Ben. I think it's a great way to cultivate a new audience and to get them interested in it, but nothing replaces the live experience. And when we talk about the high ticket prices and the rest of it, you know, in our social disconnected world, I think there is such a need for communion, which is why to some degrees the competition on Broadway is one of the few places where people can get that live interaction, even with each other.
GREENLEAFSitting right next to somebody, elbow to elbow, and hearing and feeling them react, so theater is sort of one of our last opportunities to have that as the rest of our time is kind of buried in phones and computers and work.
REHMAll right, to San Francisco, California, Andrew, you're on the air.
ANDREWHey, Diane, thanks for taking my call.
ANDREWThis question is with respect to an article that was written in the New York Times roughly a year ago about the continued loss of men in the audience, specifically heterosexual men in the audience. So it was talking about, you know, how the family no longer really made the trek or the communion visit, if you will, to Broadway. So have you folks on the panel experienced this, and if so, have you as producers tried to ramp up your induction of the 18-to-34-year-old male age group?
GREENLEAFWell, "Book of Mormon" is probably the best example of it, in that friends of mine who probably never bought their own ticket to theater, had it bought for them maybe when they were young, it's the first show that they've come back to as adults, and, you know, it just happened to take off. But I think the reality is if you look at the people who create theater, you know, they tend to be members, maybe, of the LGBT community and people like that. So people do write about what they know. It's rare that there's a breakout that could hit such a general audience. "Mormon's" an exception.
GREENLEAFBut it shows that if the material lands, that audience is available to come, and there's no reason that they shouldn't come to anything else. That just happened to break that trend.
REHMBen, or Jeff?
LUNDENI think also, most -- sorry, I think statistically most ticket buyers on Broadway are women. You know, they've done that. So, you know, but that again, that doesn't necessarily work. I mean, for instance "Bridges of Madison County" was, you know, a show that I think was marketed towards a female audience, and they didn't come. You know, so you just never know.
REHMWhat about you, Maggie?
BOLANDI agree with the you never know sentiment. I think any time we try to predict what's going to attract an audience, you know, we can make mistakes. But I don't have any data to suggest that we're seeing a significant decline in male audiences at signature.
REHMAll right, and to Richmond, Virginia. Hi there, Brendan, you're on the air.
BRENDANHi, thank you so much for taking my call.
BRENDANIt's a pleasure to be talking with a great panel, and I'm a huge fan of your show.
BRENDANI believe it was one of your guests, I tuned in very late today, so one of your guests earlier, though, was talking about the increasing quality of theater in smaller, regional markets, markets off Broadway or outside of Broadway, and one thing that -- I'm on the board of a small theater company in Richmond, and one thing that we've experienced is that it seems as though the Actors Equity Union rules are really written for major markets with larger economies and higher costs of living, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., et cetera.
BRENDANAnd I think it -- in our experience, anyway, it seems to mean that in order to have professional equity actors in your productions, you are limited either in the number that you can use or in the types of activities that you can do. Where in another market they might need to be paid, in a market like ours, you're unable to pay them to do certain types of things or pay them at equity rates, et cetera. And I think it also creates kind of a pressure on the actors themselves to carefully consider whether they even want to become a professional equity actor because it might preclude them from certain job opportunities.
BRENDANAnd so I guess my question is whether you know of any considerations or whether it's ever even been suggested that the Actors Equity Union might consider creating tiered or small-market policies or regional-market policies or something like that.
REHMWhat do you think, Maggie?
BOLANDThere are a number of different options for small, professional theater that enter into contracts with Actors Equity, and I think there are excellent resources out there on the Internet for looking at the small professional theaters' range of contracts that are available. And there's no question that the cost of hiring human beings is the single most important determining factor in figuring out what plays and musicals are going to work within a season. So I think thinking of the contracts not as limitations but as simply, you know, ways to provide satisfying employment for artists is really important, and finding the right contract that works for your organization, I'm sure there's one out there.
LUNDENI spoke with the president of Actors Equity last year when it was the 100th anniversary, and he made a statement that really stuck with me. He said that theater is bespoke entertainment. And it really is. It's crafted. It's the people in the room at the moment. There are a lot of people backstage, more people backstage than you actually see on the stage. And I know that Equity really looks at the different sizes of theaters.
LUNDENThere are a variety of what are called LORT contracts, and I think -- LORT is the League of Regional Theaters. And depending on the number of seats, they determine how much an actor makes. And it's actually same thing in New York City. Broadway exists -- the different between Broadway and off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway is purely a distinction of Actors Equity. If it's a theater that is more than 299 seats, it becomes a Broadway house, or 499 seats...
BRANTLEYFour hundred, right, right.
LUNDENYeah, if it's 500 seats or more, it's a Broadway house.
REHMHuh, interesting, and you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Seth, I want to come back to your work with the play we played a tiny little segment of. Are there things that Broadway can do now that perhaps it couldn't have done, say, 20, 25 years ago? The one we were talking about was demonstrating the differences between races, people, how they look, how they behave. Is that something that Broadway has become more nimble at?
GREENLEAFNimble? I don't -- it's tough to be nimble when the developmental process for a show is so long. "Disgraced" was one of the more timely shows, I think, to ever be onstage with a topic that was really kind of surrounding us in the world. It's rare that that gets to happen, partly because of the development, and the time that people need to sort of want to revisit and reflect on a topic. I think that we all try to do it. I think that we all want to be timely. The process doesn't necessarily encourage that. And sometimes audience participation doesn't.
GREENLEAFOne thing that I think we discovered with "Disgraced" was we may have been too timely. When you're inundated 24 hours a day with articles about this exact topic or this discussion, and then you're asked to spend a certain amount of money and use your entertainment time, it may be a little too much, and I think that's something we kind of always have to remind ourselves, is that theater to some degree is entertainment first. We get to do all those things we love, but we have to know what we're competing against to engage people's interest, too. So it was -- it's a fine balance.
REHMBen, do you want to comment?
BRANTLEYThere is a tradition, I think much more in England, specifically in London, of town hall theater, where there isn't the same mandatory gestation process, especially with the subsidized theaters like the National, where -- I mean for example when the phone hacking trials, just as they came to a conclusion last year, suddenly a play pops up at the National called "Great Britain," addressing precisely that, in broad, satiric mode, and became a huge hit.
BRANTLEYSo I don't know. Seth, do you think there's a greater receptivity to that kind of topicality in London than there is in New York, or...
GREENLEAFI think so. I think so. And, you know, just in general, I think their entire regional system and their kind of semi-professional theater is more developed than ours. And so I think that the speed in which they can turn something out and then cultivate it into a higher platform is definitely faster than ours.
REHMAnd here's a final email from Brandon in Tampa, Florida, who says, why is it that the typical Broadway straight play is more daring and willing to explore new, original stories than the Broadway musical theater? Is there a community of sorts that will make Broadway more diverse in casting and in cultural topics? What do you think?
GREENLEAFI'm not sure that's true.
BRANTLEYYeah, I'm not, either. I mean, the one thing that we have not discussed is the best musical of the year, and the best musical of year was, without question, Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton."
LUNDENWhich is opening on Broadway in August.
BRANTLEYYeah, which is -- utilizes elements of hip-hop, has a multiracial cast and looks at the story of our founding fathers.
LUNDENAnd generated more excitement than any musical I can think of in years, really since "Rent," probably. Would you say? Or "Book of Mormon."
BRANTLEYYes, it was a sold-out hit.
REHMI was going to say, is it already sold out?
BRANTLEYWell, it was sold out at the Public Theater.
LUNDENThe Public Theater, yeah, you couldn't get into it.
BRANTLEYAnd apparently, tickets are selling very well for Broadway. So we'll see.
REHMWell, that is something that some of us may be able to look forward to. I want to thank you all so much for being with us. Maggie Boland of Signature Theater, Ben Brantley, he's chief theater critic for The New York Times, Jeff Lunden, a freelance performing arts journalist, and Seth Greenleaf, Tony Award-winning Broadway producer. And thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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